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A Narco-Saint, a Death Cult, and a Lost-Cause Apostle Await the Pope in Mexico

As Mexico lavishly prepares for Pope Francis' first visit to the world's second most Catholic nation, the country's rapidly growing religious counterculture doesn't really care that he's coming.
Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz

Pope Francis arrives  on Friday in Mexico, the country with the second highest Catholic population.

Ahead of his six-day long visit, Francis has spoken out against the crime and corruption that has wreaked havoc on the nation, and has scheduled visits to several of the roughest regions of the country. But with expectations reaching a fever pitch in some circles, for many downtrodden Mexican Catholics the visit of the Pope means little.


Throughout the country, obscure saints and cults outside the Church establishment have risen in popularity in recent years, giving particular solace to addicts and small-time criminals, but also everyday folk. Millions of devotees have become fascinated by three figures: San Judas Tadeo, also known as the saint of lost causes; Malverde, the narco-saint; and the Santa Muerte, the female skeleton of the Holy Death cult.

Statues of the Santa Muerte, San Judas Tadeo, and Jesús Malverde (L-R) being sold side by side in Culiacan, Sinaloa. Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz.

San Judas stands out from the other two, because he is the only one recognized by the Church. San Judas was one of the original 12 apostles and has long been a favorite among the urban working class in Mexico. In recent years he has also become a folk hero for youth on the edge.

"We're not really down with the Pope. We're down with San Judas," Paolo Sánchez told VICE News. "Also a bit with Malverde and the Santa Muerte."

Sánchez had travelled by subway from the far south of Mexico City to San Hipólito church in the city center with his friend Jovani González, and carrying a very large statue of San Judas Tadeo strapped to his back. They joined the crowds that come to the church on the 28th of each month to pledge their devotion to the long-haired saint of lost causes, who is always draped in a green robe with a flame on his head. San Judas, they explained, has granted them miracles.

"The truth is we're addicts," Sánchez said, his eyes bloodshot and his words slurred. "He takes our vices away. He intervenes for me and my friend."


Outside San Hipólito during the most recent monthly veneration, the day was fading into evening. It seemed more like a party of glue-sniffing youth than a religious gathering.

Sánchez said he didn't care that the Pope was coming. He didn't think the Pope liked Mexico "because there's a lot of evil, a lot of corruption, a lot of narcos."

Related: The Pope Is Planning to Visit Very Troubled Parts of Mexico

Father Jerome is an Indian-born priest in charge of San Hipólito, which functions as an ordinary church except for the de facto San Judas festival that takes place every month. When he arrived four years ago he didn't have a specific interest in San Judas, he said, but has since seen miracle after miracle. He said he even experienced one himself when he was cured of his high blood sugar levels without taking medicine.

"There is a lot of criticism that this is a church for drug addicts and thieves," the priest said. "For me, somehow God brings them here, maybe they'll change their life, maybe they'll give up their addiction."

As well as stressing that San Judas "gives hope to the hopeless," the priest did acknowledge that the saint had been somewhat appropriated by criminals. "These gangsters misunderstand. They think that San Judas will protect them if they go to him before they steal or abduct people," he said. "It's this misunderstanding we must educate. The saints will not help you to do bad things or carry out illegal activities."


Father Jerome stressed that San Judas is different from the Santa Muerte and Malverde. According to him, when he first began, many followers of San Judas also carried statues of these unofficial icons, but he was able to convince most to leave them behind.

Jovani González strapped a large statue of San Judas to his back for the monthly celebration in front of San Hipólito church. Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz.

While Jesús Malverde has nothing like the following of San Judas, he maintains a pocket of influence in some parts of the country — particularly Sinaloa, the bastion of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Malverde is a Robin Hood-esque figure who is said to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor. Scholars still debate whether or not Malverde actually existed — and most believe that he didn't — but for followers the debate is irrelevant. And in the Mexican underworld, Malverde is seen as a source of strength for criminal activities.

At the Malverde Chapel in Culiacán, Jesús González and his family watch over a roadside shrine filled with paintings and busts of the mustachioed narco-saint year round.

González's father built the shrine in the 1970's. It has since become a popular place of worship for drug traffickers and criminals, as well as some who are not involved in illegal activities but still say he grants them favors in exchange for their devotion. Followers tape dollar bills and peso notes to the wall, scrawling messages on them asking for help and blessings.

Related: Partying at the Shrine of the Narco-Saint Jesús Malverde

"It's not true that Malverde is a saint just for drug dealers," the younger González told VICE News. "He is a saint for the poor, for the working class, and for the rich too. We see teachers, businessmen, housewives, everyone you could imagine here." González added that many followers of Malverde are also Catholics and that he dreamed that one day the Church might elevate the folk hero to the lists of saints.


"The truth is I sold drugs, I'll be honest," said a man, also named Jesús, who was one of several doing chores around the chapel. "I'm a sniper, cabrón." Jesús told a story of how Malverde had saved his life and kept him free when he was shot by the Mexican navy. "It was a miracle," he said.

The 37-year-old pulled up his shirt and pointed first to a bullet wound, then to a space on his torso where he planned to get a Malverde tattoo. It was just above a tattoo of Jesus, and below a necklace where the image of the Santa Muerte hung. He said he saw no contradiction between venerating both Jesus and the two unrecognized saints.

"I believe in everything, because everything exists. The good and the bad," he said.

Jesús points out where his tattoo of Malverde will eventually be inked. Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz.

The Mexican Catholic hierarchy has largely ignored Malverde, which is not surprising, given his relatively contained influence. Its tendency to downplay the significance of the Santa Muerte cult is harder to explain, given the cult's direct challenge to basic tenets of the religion, as well as its explosive growth since the turn of the century.

"All we can can do is tell the people that these types of devotion, like the Santa Muerte — which have become dangerous superstitions — are not compatible in any way with a devotion to the Catholic faith," said Mexican archdiocese spokesman Hugo Valdemar.

Valdemar also dismissed any idea that Pope Francis might address such cults during his visit. "I think that the Pope is going to address important things while he's here, on a religious and social level," he said.


Some observers suggest the Mexican church's apparent reluctance to tackle head on the influence of the Santa Muerte could reflect concern that a harsher response could push some Catholics, who also worship the skeletal figure, to leave the flock.

Scholars say that the Santa Muerte grew out of a mixture of 17th century Catholicism and its penchant for bleeding crucifixes, the cult of Santería imported from the Caribbean, and Mexico's own home-grown fascination with death. While it had been hanging around the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz for decades, the Santa Muerte really took off around 2000. First it became popular in prisons, and then among people who live outside the law. Now its appeal has expanded to a much broader cross section of Mexicans who feel themselves on the edge in some way.

Related: Our Lady of the Holy Death Is the World's Fastest Growing Religious Movement

One of the first Santa Muerte shrines lies on the border between the Mexico City neighbourhoods of Morelos and Tepito that are known for their boxers, crime, and pirated goods. They epitomize some of the issues that the Pope has promised to bring attention to, though some there seem to find more hope in the skeletal pseudo-saint than in the head of the Catholic Church.

"I'm not excited," Leticia García said of the Pope's visit as she left the Santa Muerte shrine. "To me he's just a normal guy."

These sorts of visits are a daily occurrence at the altar of Doña Queta, an elderly woman who created the shrine 14 years ago. She said she liked Pope Francis and planned to watch him on television, but this did nothing to diminish her devotion to the Holy Death.


"The Santa Muerte and the Catholic church are two different things," she said. "The Pope is the Pope, La Muerte is La Muerte."

Followers of the Santa Muerte attend a nighttime gathering. Photo by Mario Guzmán/EPA.

In a 45-minute period at least 20 people stopped to kneel in front of the skeleton statue adorned in a long colorful robe and lots of jewelry. Some left candles, others left cigarettes.

"The Santa Muerte is stigmatized. They say she's evil, she's for delinquents," said Yamil Martínez, who has a dove tattooed behind an ear and said he is an attorney. "I believe in God, but the Pope is just a normal person, he's not the voice of God or anything."

"To me, the church is the biggest mafia that exists in the world," Martínez said firmly.

Related: Investigation Casts Doubt on Soap Opera Star's Marriage to Mexican President

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz